1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/La Salle, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de

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LA SALLE, RENÉ ROBERT CAVELIER, Sieur de (1643-1687), French explorer in North America, was born at Rouen on the 22nd of November 1643. He taught for a time in a school (probably Jesuit) in France, and seems to have forfeited his claim to his father's estate by his connexion with the Jesuits. In 1666 he became a settler in Canada, whither his brother, a Sulpician abbé, had preceded him. From the Seminary of St Sulpice in Montreal La Salle received a grant on the St Lawrence about 8 m. above Montreal, where he built a stockade and established a fur-trading post. In 1669 he sold this post (partly to the Sulpicians who had granted it to him) to raise funds for an expedition to China[1] by way of the Ohio,[2] which he supposed, from the reports of the Indians, to flow into the Pacific. He passed up the St Lawrence and through Lake Ontario to a Seneca village on the Genesee river; thence with an Iroquois guide he crossed the mouth of the Niagara (where he heard the noise of the distant falls) to Ganastogue, an Iroquois colony at the head of Lake Ontario, where he met Louis Joliet and received from him a map of parts of the Great Lakes. La Salle's missionary comrades now gave up the quest for China to preach among the Indians. La Salle discovered the Ohio river, descended it at least as far as the site of Louisville, Kentucky, and possibly, though not probably, to its junction with the Mississippi, and in 1669-1670, abandoned by his few followers, made his way back to Lake Erie. Apparently he passed through Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and some way down the Illinois river. Little is known of these explorations, for his journals are lost, and the description of his travels rests only on the testimony of the anonymous author of a Histoire de M. de la Salle. Before 1673 La Salle had returned to Montreal. Becoming convinced, after the explorations of Marquette and Joliet in 1673, that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, he conceived a vast project for exploring that river to its mouth and extending the French power to the lower Mississippi Valley. He secured the support of Count Frontenac, then governor of Canada, and in 1674 and 1677 visited France, obtaining from Louis XIV. on his first visit a patent of nobility and a grant of lands about Fort Frontenac, on the site of the present Kingston, Ontario, and on his second visit a patent empowering him to explore the West at his own expense, and giving him the buffalo-hide monopoly. Late in the year 1678, at the head of a small party, he started from Fort Frontenac. He established a post above Niagara Falls, where he spent the winter, and where, his vessel having been wrecked, he built a larger ship, the “Griffon,” in which he sailed up the Great Lakes to Green Bay (Lake Michigan), where he arrived in September 1679. Sending back the “Griffon” freighted with furs, by which he hoped to satisfy the claims of his creditors, he proceeded to the Illinois river, and near what is now Peoria, Illinois, built a fort, which he called Fort Crèvecœur. Thence he detached Father Hennepin, with one companion, to explore the Illinois to its mouth, and, leaving his lieutenant, Henri de Tonty (c. 1650-c.1702),[3] with about fifteen men, at Fort Crèvecœur, he returned by land, afoot, to Canada to obtain needed supplies, discovering the fate of the “Griffon” (which proved to have been lost), thwarting the intrigues of his enemies and appeasing his creditors. In July 1680 news reached him at Fort Frontenac that nearly all Tonty's men had deserted, after destroying or appropriating most of the supplies; and that twelve of them were on their way to kill him as the surest means of escaping punishment. These he met and captured or killed. He then returned to the Illinois, to find the country devastated by the Iroquois, and his post abandoned. He formed a league of the Western Indians to fight the Iroquois, then went to Michilimackinac, where he found Tonty, proceeded again to Fort Frontenac to obtain supplies and organize his expedition anew, and returned in December 1681 to the Illinois. Passing down the Illinois to the Mississippi, which he reached in February 1682, he floated down that stream to its mouth, which he reached on the 9th of April, and, erecting there a monument and a cross, took formal possession in the name of Louis XIV., in whose honour he gave the name “Louisiana” to the region. He then returned to Michilimackinac, whence, with Tonty, he went again to the Illinois and established a fort, Fort St Louis, probably on Starved Rock (near the present Ottawa, Illinois), around which nearly 20,000 Indians (Illinois, Miamis and others seeking protection from the Iroquois) had been gathered. La Salle then went to Quebec, and La Barre, who had succeeded Frontenac, being unfriendly to him, again visited France (1684), where he succeeded in interesting the king in a scheme to establish a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi and to seize the Spanish posts in the vicinity. On the 24th of July 1684, with four vessels under the command of himself and Captain Beaujeu, a naval officer, he sailed from La Rochelle. Mistaking, it appears, the inlets of Matagorda Bay (which La Salle called St Louis's Bay) in the present state of Texas, for the mouth of an arm of the Mississippi, he landed there, and Beaujeu, soon afterwards returned to France. The expedition had met with various misfortunes; one vessel had been captured by the Spaniards and another had been wrecked; and throughout La Salle and Beaujeu had failed to work in harmony. Soon finding that he was not at the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle established a settlement and built a fort, Fort St Louis, on the Lavaca (he called it La Vache) river, and leaving there the greater part of his force, from October 1685 to March 1686 he vainly sought for the Mississippi. He also made two attempts to reach the Illinois country and Canada, and during the second, after two months of fruitless wanderings, he was assassinated, on the 19th of March 1687, by several of his followers, near the Trinity river in the present Texas.

His colony on the Lavaca, after suffering terribly from privation and disease and being attacked by the Indians, was finally broken up, and a force of Spaniards sent against it in 1689 found nothing but dead bodies and a dismantled fort; the few survivors having become domesticated in the Indian villages near by. Some writers, notably J. G. Shea, maintain that La Salle never intended to fortify the mouth of the Mississippi, but was instructed to establish an advanced post near the Spanish possessions, where he was to await a powerful expedition under a renegade Spaniard, Peñalosa, with whom he was to co-operate in expelling the Spaniards from this part of the continent.[4]

La Salle was one of the greatest of the explorers in North America. Besides discovering the Ohio and probably the Illinois, he was the first to follow the Mississippi from its upper course to its mouth and thus to establish the connexion between the discoveries of Radisson, Joliet and Marquette in the north with those of De Soto in the south. He was stern, indomitable and full of resource.

The best accounts of La Salle's explorations may be found in Francis Parkman's La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (Boston, 1879; later revised editions), in Justin Winsor's Cartier to Frontenac (Boston, 1894), and in J. G. Shea's Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi Valley (New York, 1852); see also P. Chesnel, Histoire de Cavelier de La Salle, explorations et conquête du bassin du Mississippi (Paris, 1901). Of the early narratives see Louis Hennepin, Description de la Louisiane (1683); Joutel, Journal historique du dernier voyage que feu M. de la Salle fit dans le Golfe de Mexique, &c. (Paris, 1713); and Henri de Tonty, Derniers Decouvertes dans l'Amerique septentrionale de M. de La Salle (Paris, 1697). Original narratives may be found, translated into English, in The Journeys of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, as related by his Faithful Lieutenant, Henri de Tonty, &c. (2 vols., New York, 1905), edited by I. J. Cox; in Benjamin F. French's Historical Collections of Louisiana (6 series, New York, 1846-1853), and in Shea's Early Voyages Up and Down the Mississippi (Albany, 1861); and an immense collection of documents relating to La Salle may be found in Pierre Margry's Decouvertes et etablissements des Français dans l'ouest et dans le sud de l'Amerique septentrionale, 1614-1754; Mémoires et documents originaux recueillis et publiés (6 vols., Paris, 1875-1886), especially in vol. ii. (C. C. W.)


  1. The name La Chine was sarcastically applied to La Salle's settlement on the St Lawrence.
  2. The Iroquois seem to have used the name Ohio for the Mississippi, or at least for its lower part; and this circumstance makes the story of La Salle's exploration peculiarly difficult to disentangle.
  3. Tonty (or Tonti), an Italian, born at Gaeta, was La Salle's principal lieutenant, and was the equal of his chief in intrepidity. Before his association with La Salle he had engaged in military service in Europe, during which he had lost a hand. He accompanied La Salle to the mouth of the Mississippi, and was in command of Fort St Louis from ths time of its erection until 1702, except during his journeys down the Mississippi in search of his chief. In 1702 he joined d'Iberville in lower Louisiana, and soon after was despatched on a mission to the Chickasaw Indians. This is the last authentic trace of him.
  4. Although La Salle and Don Diego de Peñalosa (1624-1687) presented to the French government independent plans for an expedition against the Spaniards and Peñalosa afterwards proposed their co-operation, there is no substantial evidence that this project was adopted. Parkman is of the opinion that La Salle proposed his expedition against the Spaniards in the hope that the conclusion of peace between France and Spain would prevent its execution and that he might then use the aid he had thus received in establishing a fortified commercial colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. See E. T. Miller, “The Connection of Peñalosa with the La Salle Expedition,” in the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, vol. v. (Austin, Tex., 1902).